A Whiff of Multilingualism in Medieval England

English speakers who come in contact with the French language only casually (on holiday, on food and wine labels etc.) are often surprised by the number of French words they recognise. But even those apparently familiar words sound very different when spoken, and rather a lot of them turn out on closer inspection to mean something rather — or indeed completely — different from their English counterparts. Although an English speaker who has never learned French may, with a bit of luck or guesswork, be able to get the gist of a short sentence in French, especially in its written form, the more a learner’s knowledge of French grows, the more apparent the differences between the two languages become.

The distinctive character of modern-day English, especially where words that look ‘French’ is concerned, is a consequence of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 and the four (or more) ensuing centuries during which three languages — English, French and Latin — co-existed and interacted in the conduct of public and private affairs in the British Isles. Each language had its place, yet all three were permanently in contact. Through this process, English acquired a large body of words of Romance origin (that is, derived ultimately from Latin, mainly via French) while retaining its Germanic grammar and syntax, although in a much simpler form than was found in English prior to 1066 (or is found in other Germanic languages today).

How many languages do you speak?

We are all well aware that different nations have different languages. What we less conscious of (in the West at least) is that every single national language is in fact a set of overlapping but quite distinct sub-languages, used at different times, often by the same speakers, for different purposes and in different contexts. Most people recognise that the conventions of written and spoken English are often distinct. We tend to observe the “rules” of grammar more carefully in writing than in speech, but even in the written word, what counts as acceptable or correct differs widely between drafting a job application and sending a text message to a friend. But beyond that, whether speaking or writing, we adopt different patterns of language, both in our choice of words and the way we put sentences together depending on the situation: at home with parents, with friends, with teachers, at work with our boss and/or our colleagues, with doctors, with officials etc. Each of these distinct ‘registers’, as linguists call them, has its own vocabulary and grammar (the more formal the situation, the less colloquial the vocabulary and the more ‘careful’ the grammar). Our choice (and sometimes shifting) of register seems largely instinctive, though it fact it is something we have learned through experience: it is not really all that different from the highly formalised rules that apply in some Asian languages, where children are taught to use different words and different grammar depending on the situation and the people they are talking to or about.

Mainly because they have acquired their knowledge of how, when and where to use these various registers through experience rather than formal instruction, speakers of modern English do not view such differences in speech level within their own language in the same light as they see the differences between, say, English and French. Everyone has to master a certain number of these different kinds of language in the course of their lives. Some of them are shared by almost all of us, but others we only acquire if and when we need them. Consider the way that microbiologists, for instance speak in their labs, at their conferences and in their research papers. Someone who isn’t a microbiologist would be able to understand very little of what was being said: it would be like listening to or reading exchanges in a foreign language. Some words might sound and look familiar, but the meaning they have for the expert speakers of this specialist language cannot be grasped by the outsider. Or, in the case of a serious accident or a crime that leads to legal proceedings, the way participants or victims might talk to family and friends about what happened is very different from the language that will be used to present and assess the same events when the matter comes to court..

Switching languages

But now imagine a culture where, instead of switching registers within a single language to reflect different contexts and functions, speakers switch from one language to another as the occasion requires. Each language will have its own vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar, but sometimes vocabulary from one language will be used in sentences that are otherwise in another language, mainly because a word in the other language seems more apt, or simply because the word in the other language comes to the speaker or writer’s mind first. Such words borrowed from one language and embedded in speech or writing in another may be used on isolated occasions, or they may be so convenient that they become part of the language into which they have been borrowed. This is precisely the situation that existed in medieval Britain from the Norman Conquest until around the end of the fifteenth century. English, French (Anglo-Norman) and Latin were all widely used; each had its own domains and functions; but these functions changed over time, and the speakers and writers were repeatedly moving between languages, so that as they spoke and wrote the languages they used were in constant contact and influencing one another. Such a culture is described as multilingual, and the linguistic behaviour it produces is called multilingualism.

During the four centuries after the Norman Conquest, a number of different languages were employed for different purposes by different classes of medieval society at different times. This does not mean that the inhabitants of medieval England were bilingual or trilingual, as linguists use those terms. Someone who is bilingual or trilingual can function with equal ease and efficiency in all circumstances in both (or all three) languages. It is doubtful that there were many people in medieval Britain who met that description. Instead, a significant number of people had at least a partial knowledge of more than one language besides their mother tongue, and could use that additional language or languages well enough to get things done in particular situations. The three main languages of medieval England were English, Anglo-Norman and Latin. During the thirteenth century, Hebrew was also used by Jews and to record transactions between Jews and Christians. Some Hebrew words were retained in Anglo-Norman and English from this period, such as, for example, the English starr – Anglo-Norman estare, a Jew’s deed or bond, from Hebrew sh’tār, ‘writing’ (now, of course, only used by historians).

French in Practice

Prior to 1066, Anglo-Saxon (the Germanic language in pre-Conquest England, the written form of the everyday English of the time) was the main language of royal administration; and, it had already begun to be used in works of literature. Even after the Conquest, a few Anglo-Saxon texts continued to be copied in monasteries for at least a century (see, for example, the list of manuscripts compiled by the Production and Use of English Manuscripts 1060 to 1220 project). After 1066, English remained the language spoken by the vast majority of the population of England, but the French brought by the invaders was the native language of the King, of the Norman nobility and their entourage who used it on a daily basis and spoke it to their children (at least in the earlier generations). By the beginning of the thirteenth century, the English-born gentry and the merchant classes had to learn French as a second language, since French had become the language of culture (it was actually in twelfth-century England that the earliest works of literature in French were written!) but also of management and increasingly of administration. Manuals survive from this time that were meant to assist people to improve their French. Some knowledge of Latin was also required, since to be ‘literate’ in the Middle Ages meant to be able to read Latin, and people learned to read and write first in Latin and then in English and French. However, some members of the higher nobility, like Simon de Montfort, the 6th Earl of Leicester (1208-1265), were native speakers of French well into the thirteenth century.

From the thirteenth century, French began to be used alongside Latin in administration and where the expression or limitation of royal power were at stake. In fact, a limited number of administrative documents in French survive from as early as the twelfth century (e.g. Leis Willelme – the French ‘Laws of William the Conqueror’; and the earliest charter in French, dating from c.1140, granting land to the Knights Hospitaller). Some historians believe that these French documents were never meant to be kept, but were simply drafts for the official Latin versions which purely by chance escaped routine destruction after they had served their purpose. If that is correct, it seems likely that many more such first drafts in French existed, but have been lost for good.

The fact that we find more French being written and preserved for the record in England from the end of the thirteenth century onward does not mean that French had become more widely spoken. It is more a question of a shift in the language of record. In the fourteenth century, the court proceedings were documented in Latin and French, but the language of formal court pleading until the second half of the fourteenth century was officially French. Nevertheless, French was not necessarily the only language spoken in court: English must have been spoken too to address witnesses (or defendants) whose command of French was poor or non-existent. Indeed, in 1362 Edward III’s government issued the Statute of Pleading which required formal pleading to be conducted in English because not enough of the king’s subjects knew sufficient French for justice to be heard to be done by all concerned. Although English was increasingly used on formal occasions and for official purposes (Parliament was opened by a speech in English for the first time in the same year 1362), French continued to be used to record court proceedings and in other administrative documents well into the middle of the fifteenth century. Indeed, the Statute of Pleading itself was recorded in French, a clear indication that (like most such legislation) it did not bring about anything like an overnight change in official linguistic behaviour.

Petitions and petitioning

The word petition is itself Anglo-Norman in origin, derived from the Latin PETITIO, ‘request, claim in a court of law’. A petition was an official document addressed by an individual or a group of individuals to the king, the king and his council, the king and his council in parliament, or to the chancellor and certain other officers of state in the hope of attracting special attention to their request. As a rule, medieval petitions fall into two categories: those that ask for redress of grievances that the petitioners believed could not be gained through normal legal procedures; and those that request some sort of favour or privilege. The practice of petitioning the king and parliament originated in the second half of the thirteenth century: the earliest petitions are from Henry III’s reign, and the latest example has been identified as belonging to the reign of James I. But the bulk of the SC8 documents (the collection comprises more than 15,000 items) belong to the reigns of Edward I, Edward II and Edward III, spanning the period from the end of the thirteenth to the second half of the fourteenth century.

During each session of a medieval parliament, petitions were dealt with at a specially allotted time. Before the end of the thirteenth century, the number of petitions being submitted had grown so large that a sorting system had to be set up, and officials were appointed just to deal with them. After the petition had been considered, the response was written on the back of the document. That is, the petition was ‘endorsed’ – Anglo-Norman (and modern French) endosser, from the Latin DORSUM, ‘back’, dos in modern French, and dorse in English as the technical term for this part of a manuscript). Later in the fourteenth century, a practice of attaching a separate document with the royal response to the petition (the so called ‘writs’) spread, and endorsement of petitions became less frequent.

In these documents we encounter Latin, French and English, used separately yet alongside each other. The documents dating from the late thirteenth century (the earliest ones we have) are mainly in Latin, but French comes to the fore during the fourteenth century, until, in the first half of the fifteenth century, English begins to appear and eventually predominates. The language of the petition is not always the same as the language of the endorsement that responds to it: we have French petitions endorsed in Latin and English petitions endorsed in French or Latin.

Although there are a few examples of petitions sent by peasants, the majority came from members of the nobility, the gentry, the urban elite and the higher clergy. A significant number of petitions are presented in the name of communities (villages, towns, ecclesiastical institutions, groups of merchants). Very often they describe the reality and problems of a particular village, town or community and as such provide important evidence for local history.

It is important to remember that the language of the petition does not necessarily correspond to the language of the petitioner. These documents were not written by the petitioners themselves but by a learned scribe, a professional with knowledge of Latin and French who listened to the problem (almost certainly explained to him in English) and then drew up a document making the petitioners’ case in a form and language he believed best suited for the purpose. In the French petitions, the grammar and syntax of the sentences, although sometimes rather irregular, is always recognisably French, though some of the vocabulary is borrowed from English. It may well be that the scribe could not think of an appropriate French word for the matter in hand and so used an English one. Or the use of an English word for a particular thing was so widespread that it had in effect become a French word — the ‘borrowed’ item had become so familiar to the ‘borrowers’ that they regarded it as their linguistic ‘property’, so it was now ‘owned’ by French as well as English. In either case the use of such a word indicates that the scribe was confident that the recipients of the petition would understand the English word as he intended, otherwise there would have been little point.

So, for example, in 1324, in a petition preserved in the UK National Archives (SC/8/272/133552 ), Thomas de Alemaigne, a silver ‘finer’ (refiner) in Devon, requests permission to ‘retain the residues’ of the King’s mines in Devon — presumably he was asking to be allowed to keep the remnants of metal which would otherwise be washed away during the mining process. He asks the King to ‘ grauntir a lui les aftirwas et les remisailles qe sount engettés hors de la mynerie’. The word remisailles is uncomplicatedly Anglo-Norman; but aftirwas is unrecorded anywhere else. Professor William Rothwell ‘decoded’ it as after + wash: ‘ that which is washed out, residue, particles’; both elements of the compound are English. It looks very like a translation of the Anglo-Norman word with which it is paired in the petition, or at any rate a way of expressing much the same idea. Why is this English word here? Probably simply because this is the word used by the petitioner himself, as a term current in his trade. But it is unselfconsciously included in an otherwise exclusively Anglo-Norman petition, and its presence shows us just how easily English vocabulary could crop up in Anglo-Norman sentences — and vice versa.

Similarly, in later petitions written in Middle English, the grammar and syntax is distinctively English, with borrowed French and Latin terms fitted into the English structures, a pattern we also find in Chaucer. This is a recurrent feature of multilingualism, and not only in the Middle Ages: it can still be observed in countries, such as the Philippines, which for historical reasons use English as an official ‘national’ language alongside local languages. Multilingual speakers and writers freely mix vocabulary from the languages they are using within their sentences, but in general they do not mix grammar or syntax. Using French grammar in an English sentence or vice versa was, then as now, a sign of inadequate language skills rather than a hallmark of a skilled multilingual communicator. And when eventually the monolingual English-speaking culture of the early modern period emerged, its language was unmistakeably still Germanic in terms of grammar and syntax, although enormously enriched by French-derived vocabulary, a mirror image of the English vocabulary embedded in French syntax that we find in some surviving documents from the multilingual phase of English history.

A Complaint from the City

With all this in mind, we can look at a typical administrative document characteristic of such multilingualism. Dating from 1380, it belongs to a vast collection of medieval petitions to the King and Parliament now in The National Archives (collection SC 8). High definition photographic images of the majority of the SC 8 documents are now available for free download from The National Archives website, and each is accompanied by a detailed catalogue entry and an English summary of the text of the petition. The documents can be found either via the comprehensive National Archives Catalogue, or in the specific Documents Online Search Page where you can search for petitions by specific personal or place names, as well as by keywords in English, e.g. ‘fisherman’, ‘iron’, ‘king’ etc. (The enhanced searchability of the ‘Ancient Petitions’ collection is part of a joint project between the National Archives and the University of York).

Copyright conditions do not allow us to reproduce or distribute the actual image of the document concerned here, but it can be accessed directly from the National Archives (requires Adobe Acrobat reader). The transcription and annotated translation of the original document is published here by kind permission of the National Archives, and may under appropriate circumstances be copied or excerpted, subject to the conditions laid down by the National Archives.


The National Archives catalogue provides the following description and summary of the document:

Petitioners: The people of the court, and those frequenting and inhabiting the streets of Smithfield and Holborn

Addressees: King and council

Places mentioned: Newgate, [ London]; London; Knightsbridge, [Middlesex]

Nature of request: The people of the court, and those frequenting and inhabiting the streets of Smithfield and Holborn complain about the stench and abominations caused by animals slaughtered in the butchery near St Nicholas’ church in Newgate, the refuse from which is thrown into pits in two gardens near Holborn bridge, which are so severe that they are making people ill; they request a penal ordinance, that butchers are to kill their animals at Knightsbridge, or elsewhere where they will not harm people, as was previously ordained in parliament, on pain of confiscation of the carcasses and of a year’s prison. And they requests writs on this in Chancery to the Mayor and Aldermen, at the suit of those who wish to complain, whenever it is necessary to put this ordinance into execution.

Endorsement: An ordinance has already been made on this matter, as fully appears from writs issued on this, and enrolled in the Chancery of King Edward, the present king’s grandfather, in the thirty-fifth and forty-fourth years of his reign in England. The king wishes their ordinance to be held and observed, and put into due execution, and writs issued on this again whenever necessary, if anyone should wish to complain.


Transcription and Translation

Here now is a transcription and translation of the document, laid out on the following principles.

The manuscript is transcribed line by line (to help those who have downloaded the manuscript image and want to try to match the transcription against the scribe’s handwriting) and is followed by a semi-literal translation of the content of the line into English. Both the word order and in some cases the choice of words in the translation have been dictated by a wish to provide as close and accurate a key as possible to the original text, and where necessary that wish has been given precedence over providing an elegant or idiomatic translation. So this is in no sense intended as an exemplary piece of translation from Anglo-Norman into English. Where the transcription has expanded parts of words that, in accordance with the usual practice of scribes, have been written in a contracted or abbreviated form, the expanded portions are in italics. Where parts of words have been left out altogether by the scribe (as distinct from being indicated by a symbolic equivalent) the missing letters have been supplied in square brackets. If you click on any of the highlighted words in the French document, you will be shown a commentary on the word concerned, including links to the AND. Click the word again to hide the commentary.

A nostre seignur le rei et son bon conseil monstrent ses subgiz les curtesans gentz de courte et les repairant et inhabitantz les rue de

To our lord the king and to his good council show his subjects, the people of the court, and those visiting and residing in the streets of

Smethfeld et de Holburne, comment parmy les grauntz et horrible puours et abhominacions morteles qe de jour en autre aviegnent

Smithfield and Holborn, how through the strong and horrible stench and deadly abominations that come every day

illoeqes du sank corrupt et de les entrailles de boefs, berbiz et des porcs tué en la bocherie pres de l’eglise de Seint

there from putrified blood and guts of oxen, sheep and pigs slaughtered in the butchery near the church of Saint

Nicholas dedeinz Neugate et jetté[z] en diverz fossees dedeinz deux gardyns pres de Holbournebrigg, les curtesans ditz gentz de la courte repairant

Nicholas in Newgate and thrown in various ditches within two gardens near Holborn Bridge, the said people of the court, and those visiting

e [inhabitantz] par l’[infec]tion del eire, les abhominacions et poiours susditz et aussint par plusours malx qe, notoirement,

and living there, through the [contamination] of the air, the aforementioned abhominations and stench and also through many sicknesses that, as is well known,

ensuent , preignent diverses maladiees et sont trope grevousement mys a deseese , par qoi prient humblement les ditz

ensue, have caught various diseases and are suffering most grievously, for which reason do humbly entreat you the said

subgitz qe tant pur leur eese e quiete, come pur l’ onestee de la citee qe remede en soit fait par ordenance penale

subjects, both for their own comfort and peace and for the good name of the city, that remedy be given by a penal ordinance

qe les ditz bochers tuent leur bestes a Knyghtebrigg ou aillours qe ne soit a la nusance de mesmes voz

to the effect that the said butchers kill their animals in Knightsbridge or elsewhere where it will cause no nuisance to your same

subgiz, sicone autrefaiz estoit ordené en parlement, c’est assavoir sur penne de forfaire la chare de toutes les bestes

subjects, as was earlier ordained in parliament, namely on penalty of forfeiting the meat of all the animals

tuez en la dite bocherie et d’avoir la prisone d’un an. Et sur ce prient meismes voz subgiz qe briefs ent soient

killed in the said butchery and of one year’s imprisonment. And on this [matter] your same subjects request that writs be

grantez en vostre chancellerie directés as maire e aldermans de vostre dite citee et a la pursuitz de ceux qi y voudront

granted in your chancery, addressed to the mayor and aldermen of your aforesaid city and for the proceedings of those wishing

compleindre a toutes les foiz qe mestere serra de faire due execucion de la dite ordenance.

to complain whenever it may prove necessary to put the said ordinance into due effect



Il y a ordinance faite sur ceste matire devant

An ordinance was issued on this matter previous to

ceste heere come pleinement appiert par briefs

this time, as is plainly apparent from writs

sur ce faitz et enroullez en la Chancellerie le roi

concerning it drawn up and enrolled in the Chancery of King

Edward, aielle nostre seignur le roi q’ore est, es ans de

Edward, grandfather of lord the King who now is, in the years of

son regne d’Engleterre trent quint et quarant

his reign over England thirty fifth and forty

quarte, la quele ordinance nostre seignur le roi voet

fourth, which ordinance our lord the king wishes

qe soit tenue e gardé et myse en due execucion

to be respected, observed and duly executed

et brefs sur ce faitz de novel tantz et tieux

and [wishes] writs on his matter to be re-issued in whatever numbers and of whatever kind

come en busoignera si nul se vorra ent

may be necessary in case anyone shall wish to


complain of it.